May 29, 2008 / 10:29 AM / 12 years ago

Myanmar grants visas, but slow access to delta

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Myanmar is handing out more visas to foreign aid workers to help in the cyclone aid effort, but red tape is still hampering access to the devastated Irrawaddy Delta area, a U.N. official said on Thursday.

Nearly a week after junta supremo Than Shwe promised he would allow in “all” legitimate foreign aid workers, the United Nations said the military government had approved 45 remaining visa requests from U.N. agencies.

But only seven U.N. expatriate staff had made it out of the former capital, Yangon, on Wednesday, Dan Baker, U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, told Reuters.

“Following what’s been agreed during the last week, I mean that’s just really not acceptable,” Baker said of bureaucratic red tape hampering their access to the delta where up to 2.4 million people were left destitute by Cyclone Nargis on May 2.

Cooperation with some government departments was good, but “it’s not clear that every ministry has gotten the message,” Baker said in a telephone interview from Yangon.

He said it was not unreasonable to want to keep tabs on the movements of international staff, “but that should not stop anybody from going and going in a timely way.”

The regime has been criticized for dragging its feet on allowing a large-scale international relief effort in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which left 134,000 dead or missing.

Some analysts say it may be out of fear that opening up the country would loosen the grip on power the army has held since a 1962 coup.

Other aid groups also faced problems getting out of Yangon.

The International Federation of the Red Cross, which has some 30 foreign experts in Yangon, is still waiting for a green light to us them to establish aid hubs in the delta.

Red Cross spokesman John Sparrow said Myanmar Red Cross workers were doing a tremendous job but they had little experience in handling such a complex major disaster.

“The people we have who we can deploy have seen this before,” he said of the foreign staff who have expertise in areas such as health, water, sanitation and shelter.

They can quickly make decisions, advise and evaluate. They bring experience and know how,” he said.

Baker, who visited the delta on Tuesday on a government-sponsored trip, said larger towns such as Bogale and Labutta appeared to be getting a steady stream of supplies.

But in one town there only appeared to be enough rice for a couple of days.

“People were making signs like putting their fingers to their mouth as though they were hungry,” he said.

There were no indications of major outbreaks of disease, beyond some cases of diarrhoea and respiratory infections, he said.

He said a joint assessment by the United Nations, Southeast Asia’s regional body ASEAN and the Myanmar government was expected within 2 weeks and will “hopefully solve this question of, are there people who haven’t been reached at all? If so, where are they?”

(Additional reporting by Darren Schuettler

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani

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